Proposal for global regulation of web

This map of the world displays Facebook friendships. A new proposal would require internet regulation.

Story highlights

  • An unexpected new proposal for international regulation of the internet drew warnings
  • Left a global conference on the issue on the edge of collapse in Dubai
  • Group of Arab states put forward a plan that would require countries to regulate internet firms
  • Has also won the backing of Russia and China, along with a group of other countries

An unexpected new proposal for international regulation of the internet drew warnings over the weekend of a spread of online censorship and left a global conference on the issue on the edge of collapse.

The deep divisions over treatment of the internet came after a group of Arab states put forward a plan late on Friday that would require countries around the world to explicitly regulate internet companies. The proposal, made at a conference in Dubai to agree a new international telecoms treaty, has also won the backing of Russia and China, along with a group of other countries.

The pitch for direct regulation came as an unwelcome surprise to delegations from the US and other countries that have supported the current light system of regulation for the internet.

"The conference has been hijacked by a group of countries that want to extend regulation of the internet," said one person familiar with the US position. "This is completely unacceptable to the US point of view."

Although countries are already free to impose national regulations, the US and its allies argue that enshrining the approach in a treaty would extend international legitimacy to repressive regimes that want to limit internet communications, while also making it easier for countries to co-operate on censorship and other restrictive practices.

Tariq al-Awadhi, head of the Arab states delegation, said that it made sense for internet companies to be included in the regulations since this would help force them to work together with network operators.

"They need to come to commercial agreements with one another anyway," he said.

A number of countries in the Arab world and in Africa have argued that internet companies should hand over more of their revenues to the communications networks that carry their traffic in other countries. Traffic agreements are currently reached through direct negotiations between internet and network companies, an approach that the US maintains already allows for rates to be set at a fair level.

The call for new regulation could lead to a break-down in the talks, according to people involved in the discussions. The US delegation will refuse to support anything that extends regulation in a way that damages internet freedom and has full backing from Washington to walk out on the talks if necessary, said the person familiar with the US position.

The division has set the stage for tense talks in the early part of this week, with a final treaty due to be completed by Friday.

"We are going to sit together, and maybe we can come to a solution," said Mr Awadhi. "Maybe the US has misunderstood our intentions, so we can explain and hear from their side why they have fear from this one, and we can maybe change our wording."

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